Runtime: 97 minutes
Write/director: Alanis Obomsawin
By Caz Armstrong
Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has directed dozens of films, many of which document First Nations culture and history. Her 50th film “Our People Will Be Healed”(2017) focuses on one of Manitoba’s largest First Nations communities, Norway House, and how the people there are looking ahead towards healing and reclamation of culture through education.
We’re introduced to the community firstly through the school. The majority of students are First Nations and around half of the teachers are too. The school is committed to including First Nations culture, music, language and traditions into the curriculum. In fact, in order to graduate students must take a native studies course.
The school teaches the Cree language to all students although unfortunately it seems that they can only teach the basics given the time available. How wonderful it is to see a school actively decolonising the curriculum as well as using education to reclaim a stolen culture.
There is a clear passion amongst the teachers to provide the children with an understanding of their language and culture. Not only for the richness and heritage it brings, but to be able to know when something is being taken away. You don’t know what you’ve lost if you were never given it in the first place so these children will be given the tools to protect their heritage in future.
An assortment of other aspects of community life are touched on, from local security to boat racing and a fiddle jamboree. Obomsawin’s gentle and unobtrusive hand elicits an open honesty from the subjects. There is a very calming quality to the tone, with no major dramas or heightened emotions. We’re simply shown a community which may happen to look different to the one the viewer is used to.
But there’s a lot of information in the spaces between the notes and we get a glimpse of it through passing phrases. One teenager refers to ‘trouble at home’ and another references drugs and alcohol in the family. The school works very hard to stop students from dropping out of education and older women talk of having been bullied in white majority schools. This is the looming “because otherwise…” that puts these educational efforts into sharper perspective.
Later in the film the gentle tone becomes more poignant as we learn about the many First Nations women who are missing or murdered. The supportive Norway House community is vital because of the terrible effects that racism and colonisation have had on the First Nations people. There is a dark cloud outside the door.
Just when we really start to realise more acutely the importance of cultural heritage and the impacts of racism on this community we head to a violin jamboree and overstay our welcome. It’s wonderful to see people enjoying music and we do get to hear what it means to them. But we perhaps don’t need to stay for so many of the songs.
The tone makes another 90 degree turn for a narrated history lesson towards the end. It’s an interesting choice to put the history at the end because it would have provided more context for what we saw at the start. Presumably this was designed to make us reconsider what we learned in a new light and examine our own initial assumptions. But the order does feel jumbled.
The cinematography is respectful of the beautiful natural landscape without making an enormous deal of it. After all this is a film about people first and foremost. Those people have a deep connection with the landscape but it’s not about pretty pictures.
Viewers will hopefully come away with a much greater understanding of the importance of First Nations cultural heritage and some of the ways it has been stolen over the years. Of course you can only learn so much in 97 minutes, but there’s a great deal to be said for the tone and style as well as the factual information when getting a point across.
The lack of central driving force to pull all the strands together doesn’t help the jumbled content. But this is still a quietly celebratory documentary with a passion for community, education, and ultimately, decolonisation through healing.